Remember when Christmas was a time you reveled in the season? The yuletide sights, sounds, and smells built your anticipation of a happy, relaxed holiday with friends and family.
Now, the first Christmas carols in the stores may remind you that the most hectic time of the year is just ahead.
If your church is planning to put a Christmas special on broadcast television, the rising pressures may make you feel that “It’s (not) a Wonderful Life.” But take heart! All of the planning, lighting, shooting, and editing headaches give way to a sense of real Christmas as you realize your efforts are helping to offer the gift of Jesus to your viewers. You literally give the Christmas angels wings as you transmit His story into people’s homes through airwaves, cables, or Internet.
Christmas is the best time of the year for local churches to produce TV specials, even more so than Easter. TV stations and cable systems are the most open to making airtime available to locally produced programs at Christmas. A Christmas special offers one of the best opportunities to creatively present the Gospel in powerful, moving ways. American viewers have become accustomed to making a variety of televised holiday programs a part of their Christmas traditions. It’s also a good chance to promote your church to the area. With that in mind, here are some practical, not-so-technical, guidelines for producing a Christmas TV special.
Not all television systems will make airtime available for local Christmas programs, but some will. The size of your TV market will affect the availability and cost. Generally, the greater the population, the higher the cost, but the more outlets there are for broadcasting. Network affiliate stations, like ABC, CBS, etc, have less freedom to offer time than independent stations.
I was excited one year because our local NBC station had offered us an hour of primetime on Christmas Eve. A couple of weeks later, the network sent word that it was televising a classic Christmas movie during the evening that could not be interrupted with local programming. We were bumped to 10 p.m., which wasn’t bad, but it cost us some younger viewers who had turned in by that time anticipating Santa’s arrival. Some stations choose not to have a 10 p.m. newscast on Christmas Eve, and might make that time available. If you air your special prior to Christmas Eve, you may be going up against a network level holiday production. Your best chance to attract a local audience to a local program is sometimes on the night before Christmas.
If you haven’t already secured a broadcast time slot, check out the network stations first because their viewing audience will be the largest. If they don’t offer time, or it is cost prohibitive, approach the independent stations in your area. Christian TV stations are usually very open to selling airtime to local producers at Christmas. Christian cable TV networks usually also make time available for programming locally and nationally during December. The cost of airing your program across the country can sometimes not be much more than televising it in your local area. Call your cable system sales rep for information on local and national opportunities.
If you currently televise your worship services, the most cost effective airtime would be your regular time slot. Some pastors won’t be willing to substitute a Christmas special for worship TV. If funding for airtime is a problem, you might try appealing to some business owners in your church to help sponsor the telecast. Offer to give their business name a thanks in the credits or create an ending tag that lists all the names of the sponsors. You could even produce a 30 second spot promoting the business and edit it on to the beginning or end of your special.
The music and drama ministries of most churches produce some kind of major, yearly Christmas celebration. The majority of church Christmas TV specials consist almost entirely of that particular event. While it’s the most obvious source for 30 – 60 minutes of uplifting, entertaining content, I want to encourage you to do more with your telecast. Produce your show as much for television as the musicians produce it for the sanctuary.
Be creative, not only in the ways you shoot a musical presentation, but in how you communicate Christmas to your viewers. Produce your own segments that will enhance the message of the choir, orchestra, and actors. Create an opening and closing for your program that will capture and hold your audience. They should establish and conclude the theme for the program. If the choral production has a story line, you might introduce the main characters in a dramatic scene that would set the stage for the musical. Remember, the people at home will experience your production in a much more intimate way than the people in the sanctuary.
Your pastor, and possibly his family, can add a warm, personal touch to your production. Intersperse segments with the pastor throughout the show welcoming the viewers, speaking about the coming of Christ, reading the Christmas scripture, or supporting the message of the musical. Ask him to share a personal memory from a Christmas in his own life. Shoot him in an intimate, inviting setting like his home, next to the fireplace or Christmas tree.
Produce other special segments that will add variety to your program. Musical ensembles, hand bell choirs, gifted soloists, or interpretive dancers can enhance your special when you shoot them in different locations. Don’t tape all your performers in your sanctuary. It is worth the investment to rent some remote production equipment, if need be, to shoot on location. In the past few years, we have shot various musicians and actors in places like the our city’s downtown square, a drive-through Christmas park, the sanctuary of a different denomination’s church, and in manger scenes created in a horse barn and a rustic log building. We have had access to a production company with a mid-sized remote video truck. (E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for info about the company.) You can also produce moving scenes with one camera if you record your best singers in advance and shoot them lip-syncing on location. Dream Big! These can be the strongest portions of your production.
Music and Media Crossovers
Whenever a musical presentation is produced for television there are two critical areas that the music and media ministries share, micing and lighting. Media and music ministries need to have a mutual respect for, and understanding of, the goals of their Christmas productions. Music will always want the audio/visual experience of the audience in the worship center to be the strongest it can be. Media, if you are producing music’s program for TV, will want the best of sight and sound for those at home.
Microphone placement is critical for both the house and broadcast mix. Check with your Music Minister about his preferences in the sanctuary. He may want softer instruments, like strings and woodwinds, boosted in the house. Or, he might prefer a natural, ambient sound from the orchestra for the live audience. If your preference is more of an ambient mix for broadcast, then you can mic the instruments much like you do the choir, in groups or sections. If you are going to capture the audio on a multi-track recorder, then you will want to mic all parts of the orchestra. A music minister may need to be gently reminded when you begin placing multiple microphones in the orchestra that they are for TV not the house.
The quality of the broadcast mix can make or break a TV production. If you normally use volunteers, you may want to freelance in a professional mixer for your recorded sound, especially if you are going to use numerous mics.
The area that can cause more friction between music and media during Christmas TV productions is lighting. Again, it is imperative that both ministries appreciate the needs and desires of the other. Media will want to support the wish of music to enhance the dramatic effect in the sanctuary with colors, effects, and varying light levels. I once had to televise an Easter pageant that had 90 seconds of near darkness after the crucifixion scene, as Jesus’ body was being taken down and carried out. It was powerful for the house, but terrible on the screen. Music needs to understand that extremely low light levels, or extended blackouts, can disrupt the TV ministry’s ability to shoot broadcast quality video. Images that are too dark, or washed out by extremely hot lighting, will often cause viewers to change channels, or write off a church production as amateurish. Also, it’s best if you are shooting for television to avoid follow spots. Try and light the whole production with stage lighting. The intensity and color temperature variations of follow spots can wreak havoc on camera iris levels and white balance.
Both productions deserve equal priority. Music and media should work together as a team to most effectively communicate Christ to people in the pews and their easy chairs.
The more visual you make your special, the better. Include unusual camera angles from a shoulder mounted camera or one on a jib. Freelance in experienced operators of such cameras. Don’t cut costs on beautiful, creative shots.
If your Christmas musical is presented several times, shoot it at least twice to give you editing options. If it is performed only once, ask your music minister if the dress rehearsal could be done as if it were in front of an audience, and videotape it. In between performances, look at the unedited footage of the first shoot and pinpoint the weak spots. Make sure everyone on your crew is clear about the shots that need improvement in the next taping. It is always a good idea when recording a Christmas event to configure one or more of your VTRs as iso decks. Record only one camera feed to an iso deck. Iso reels can be lifesavers in editing.
If your crew is primarily volunteers, choose them carefully. Assign your director and camera operators who have the sharpest eye and the quickest response. If you do not direct the camera shots yourself, you should consider adding a director to your freelance crew. Your director should have a great sense of flow to choose shots, and switch them so that they compliment the music. Try to schedule as many of your volunteers on the crew as possible. Including them in a special production helps build confidence, enthusiasm for the ministry, and a team spirit. On projects like this you can always use extra production assistants, grips, and “go-fers.”
Two crew positions that I have found to be invaluable are the prompter and the timer. Prompters follow the score and script of the musical and prompt the video director, broadcast and house sound operators, and the light board operator as to what is coming next. The timer writes the length of each song or scene of the production as it happens, and a total time. The time list can help the editor figure how a longer than sixty-minute program will be condensed into an hour or half-hour long telecast. First, determine the length of your open, closing, and special segments, and then subtract that total from your allotted broadcast length of show. The musical excerpts will need to fit in the remaining time.
Listen for the Wings
After the many hours of preparation, production, and post-production have turned your holidays into busy days, reward yourself. Watch your own program as a Christmas tradition in your home. Realize that you have given the Christmas angels flight once again with the “good tidings of great joy” over the airwaves to an ever-longing audience.